The year 2013 marked the 25th Anniversary of The Vocal-Free Zone Music Studio in its myriad forms. The name "The Vocal-Free Zone" was originally chosen because the intent of the studio was to produce exclusively instrumental music. Now, some might infer that the name expresses a possible antipathy toward, or even the actual exclusion of, vocalists. Let me take this opportunity to assure you that nothing could be further from the, I mean . . . well yes, that is correct. With a few exceptions*. See the brochure on the Compendium page for a tongue-in-cheek elaboration of my acerbic attitude and defensive posture against popular vocal music. But enough about what the studio is not and on to what it is and has been over the span of two and a half decades.
*e.g. I have an affinity for Brazilian music and singers, who generally exhibit no modern melismatic tendencies. The absence of melisma is a requirement to get in the door.
Evolution of a Recording Studio
The History of The Vocal-Free Zone
The studio began in the early '80s for personal work/fun but in 1988 it made a transition to a licensed business under the "Vocal-Free Zone" name dedicated to professional work with PBS Television. Over time, it also served additional uses including realizing a wide variety of personal jazz and classical music projects like "20th Century Pastiche - The Compositions of Tom Hopkins" CD in 1996 (see the Musical Compositions section of this site.) In the late 90s the studio was employed for the recording, editing, mixing, and mastering of many 3rd party CD projects. In the first decade of the 2000's it took on a new role as the primary studio used for my programming of Garritan sample libraries - to the exclusion of almost everything else musical. Translation: That was a very busy time for the Vocal-Free Zone! All personal music projects were necessarily put on hold until after I retired, lo these many years later.
Twenty five years have brought a lot of changes to the studio. Things were, in fact, progressing so rapidly in the late '80s and early '90s that it was hard to keep up with the changes. Sometimes drastic additions and re-designs took place every few months (or even every few weeks) as I tried to accommodate the increasing demands of both work and the rapidly evolving technology. The studio went from a small personal project studio to a fully functioning professional facility in a head-spinning amount of time. I thought that a photographic tour of those changes would be enlightening or, at least, tedious. So, I'm going to begin the tour several years before it became a licensed studio and prior to my initial experiments with MIDI.
The Vocal-Free Zone - Version #1 and Its Predecessors
1983 brought the first steps toward a working studio as seen above left. It included all the basic elements: A 4 track reel-to-reel tape recorder, three cassette recorders, a simple mixer with spring reverb, an amplifier, an octave band equalizer, two small speakers, and headphones. I had one Shure ribbon mic to record my trumpet and flugelhorn.
The above photo on the right shows how 1984 brought a redesign of the layout with an angled work surface for more comfortable use with built-in positions for just about all of the equipment. I designed and built some dynamic soffit-mounted speaker monitors and added a Tascam Portastudio 144 4 track recorder making convenient "punch-in" overdubbing possible for the first time. I also added a small analog synthesizer keyboard. As you may have guessed by now, I had the Portastudio disassembled within a few weeks in an attempt to recalibrate the DBX noise reduction to my satisfaction. Typical destructive behavior but I tried to keep it quiet.
The studio remained pretty much like that until 1987 when I made the move into music sequencing with the purchase of my first MIDI equipment: An Akai X-7000 sampling keyboard, the Alesis MMT-8 sequencer and HR-16 drum machine. This brought a complete redesign of the cabinetry to make room for the burgeoning list of equipment as seen in the photo on the left below. Then in 1988 I started working for PBS Television, first as a technician operating the Alesis sequencer and then, soon afterward, as a composer. I added the Yamaha TX81z synthesizer to increase my palette of sounds, followed in 1989 by the Yamaha TX-16w sampler. The TX-16w was an absolute nightmare to program but taught me a great deal about this new area of sound design and introduced me to sampling and programming my own instruments from scratch. I added more outboard gear in the form of reverb and effects modules plus sundry microphones and mic preamps. It was also necessary to add video capabilities to the system since I was now composing to/for television cues even though, at this point, all tracking and mixing was being done at the PBS facility in Seattle.
I built my first mixing console for the studio in 1989. With it came the addition of new Fostex and Tascam mixers, a patchbay to allow flexibility in the routing of equipment, and a new 8 track Fostex R8 reel-to-reel recorder with time code synchronization while still using the Alesis sequencing equipment, now installed in the new mixing console. I mounted the Fostex multi-track in the cabinetry with a sealed glass door to keep transport noise from bleeding into the room when I was recording brass instruments. The multi-track also had a handy-dandy remote for which I quickly designed a custom stand. I designed a simple way of attaching a music stand to the top of it so I could read printed music parts while all remote controls, including the punch-in pedal, were conveniently in front of me. A small monochrome video monitor rested on the controller keyboard so I could roll the video tape and compose at the keyboard while watching the cues.
1990 continued the modifications with the addition of one of the new Tascam SV-3200 DAT (Digital Audio Tape) machines for mixdown of completed cues. The studio was rapidly reaching the point where all tracking and audio mixes could be completed in my studio and then delivered to PBS to be dropped into a pair of tracks on the station's 24 track tape machine. This gave me considerably more control over the results (which I liked) and reduced my travel time (which I liked even more.)
The biggest change came with the acquisition by several members of the PBS composing team of Atari Mega ST computers and C-Lab Notator software. This gave most of the team compatibility for exchanging work files. The next couple of years came with a steep learning curve: The "900 page software manual" type of learning curve. These software tools were new to the world of music and we were working on the dreaded Cutting Edge of Technology – with deadlines! Cutting Edge . . . deadlines . . . not the best combination.
Another big change in 1990 was the addition of a new recording booth in another room that could be folded out when needed and closed, out of the way, when not in use. It became the one consistent feature for all subsequent versions of the Vocal-Free Zone, which eventually moved to the same room as the booth; see the photos in the VFZ version #2 section below.
1991 to 1993 brought more equipment – considerably more equipment. This required new cabinetry for rack mounting the expanding list of devices (as seen in the photos above) including: A new Akai CD3000 sampler, two new Akai DR4d digital multi-track hard disc recorders for 8 digital tracks with editing, more sound modules like the Emu Proteus line, more effects modules, better mic preamps, removable cartridge hard drives, etc. An expanded patchbay system was built to route all of this new equipment to and from the new Mackie 1604 mixers and other equipment; quick flexibility for routing signals was essential. It also involved considerable attention to detail to avoid noise problems like ground loop hum. I designed and built new near-field monitors for the console and added a cheap extra computer speaker to be used for checking the mono compatibility of mixes on something similar to the awful speakers built into most TVs of the time. I also used an oscilloscope to check mono compatibility since phase cancellation was a major concern of the PBS engineering staff in the days of common monaural TV speakers. The Akai hard disc digital audio recording system now had full SMPTE synchronization with the MIDI computer so that audio and MIDI could be used together with accurate timing between them (computers were not yet powerful enough to do both audio and MIDI.)
By the late 90s I had converted from Atari computers to PCs and new technology like Gigasampler on that platform had begun to revolutionize sample instrument design with real-time hard drive streaming of samples, cleverly sidestepping the RAM limitations. Things were strongly trending from hardware to software by this time and I added extra computers to accommodate this paradigm shift.
I began to use the studio for more independent productions outside of PBS. One of the larger projects was the creation of the music for a Six Flags Theme Park jungle ride. That one was actually quite a lot of fun because it involved the sound design of a palette of animal sounds accompanying the music. Lots of monkey sounds were needed and we didn't need to search far for monkey impersonators! I was a chimp off the old block.
I tried to accept off-the-beaten-path clients whose work I found interesting - unusual ethnic music; restoration of old vinyl recordings; classical 20th Century flute music; ambient meditative music with extensive sound design requirements; brass quintets; live concert performance recordings; editing, mixing, and mastering CDs for production; etc. I also increased the amount of time I was investing in my own music projects.
Eventually, it became clear that I needed to re-think the entire studio, completing the move from primarily hardware-based to primarily software-based. Software was supplanting virtually all functions that had, up to that time, required hardware - audio recording, mixing, effects, and even sound sources. It was a movement toward complete integration within the computer of all facets of music production. Efficiently adopting this approach would require redoing everything in the studio from the ground up. A large, daunting job. Cool! As you may have gathered by now, I love change!
The Vocal-Free Zone - Version #2 - Spring, 2000
By the spring of 2000 the PBS corporation was coming under more financial pressure and the productions were becoming fewer. Computers had now become fast enough to handle both MIDI and audio data simultaneously. I decided it was time to do the full redesign of the studio and move it to a larger room - the one with the recording booth. I sold, gave away, or donated virtually all of the rack equipment for audio engineering that had accumulated over the preceding decade plus. Largely a clean slate. I wanted to use three dedicated computers; one to handle MIDI sequencing/audio recording; and two others as dedicated sample-streaming playback machines with data pipelines linking the sample-streaming machines to the primary MIDI/audio machine. Each computer would have its own video monitor and all three monitors would be built into a very futuristic console. Mixing could now be done entirely in the computer so I chose to eliminate hardware mixers. Unlike most of my audio brethren I actually preferred mixing with a mouse (still do.) Each of the computers would be built into individual, sealed chambers within the custom cabinetry and an elaborate plenum system with fans would exhaust the hot air produced by the computers to the outside of the building while keeping fan noise isolated from the room. All working surfaces would be within a 180 degree swivel of my chair.
The redesign was drastic and had some very difficult construction details so I made the decision to do a CAD mockup of the design first in the computer before actually building anything, as seen in the CAD pictures above. The CAD design worked very well indeed, although it took some time for me to become familiar with operating the CAD software. It allowed me to make quick modifications and do a virtual “walk through” of the new studio to see how things felt before anything had been built. It also supplied me with accurate information on the compound angles that I had designed into the space-ship-like console. Once I was satisfied with the design I began construction. It took several months to complete but the finished studio exceeded my hopes. As it turned out, the CAD pictures strongly resembled the finished studio even though I made many design changes during the actual construction phase.
Below are photos of the finished studio as it looked in 2005. By then I was several years into the Garritan era of the studio. Video monitors were changed that year from CRT to LCD flat screens. These photos show both the CRT's (on the right) and LCD's (middle and left.)
The series of pictures below shows how the recording booth can be opened and configured to the needs of the session. The wall and the movable panels use sound absorbent fiberglass board with fabric covering. The panels are double folding. This gives great flexibility in configuration. The console also was hinged on the left side so that it could be moved easily to open up more space for the booth (not shown in the photos) while continuing to function.
This configuration of the studio served me well for over 10 years. There were changes over the those years but the majority were modifications to the computer system and its software, both of them easier and far less expensive to implement compared to the earlier days of the studio when changes meant actual hardware replacements and additions.
The Vocal-Free Zone - Version #3 - Summer, 2011
When I retired in June of 2011 I set about making another change to the studio. This new system was going to be tailored exclusively to my own projects - composing, recording, EWI playing, and also HD video recording and editing. Technology had evolved to the point where everything (that I was interested in doing) could be accomplished using a single powerful computer. Existing hardware was trimmed further from version #2 of the studio - more equipment was sold, given away, or donated leaving only the tiny fraction required. I cannibalized the existing cabinetry to serve the new purposes. I eliminated the futuristic console and gutted the wall cabinet, reclaiming it primarily for much-needed storage space. The updated computer received dual video monitors to maximize screen real estate for software tracking and mixing, while, for the first time, I added speakers not designed and built by me: Powered KRK monitors supplemented by an inconspicuously-placed powered Fostex subwoofer with the whole system calibrated. The fold-out recording booth in the wall remained as the only feature untouched from VFZ #2. All in all, it was a massive down-sizing while maintaining or advancing desired capabilities in software. The project was completed by the end of the summer, 2011.
The Vocal-Free Zone - Version #4 - Fall, 2017
The latest version was constructed to improve some perceived short comings in design #3 - more storage, a standing workstation (for health reasons,) and consolidation of resources within a modern minimalistic interior design aesthetic. The final design is very satisfying to use and succeeded in addressing the shortcomings.
Audio/Video and Music Software
I'm presenting here a few of the best of the excellent tools that I am using in retirement to create, edit, and produce musical and video projects. A single powerful computer can now far out-perform multiple computers of just a few years ago and the software below takes advantage of this fact. They also demonstrate the progress that has been made in the last 25 years in all areas of audio/video production. Reminder: Each of the software screenshots below has an alternate enlarged view available for detailed examination by clicking on the graphic. Use the "back" button to return to this page.
Cakewalk's Sonar, until recently, was my main sequencing/audio mixing program. It is capable of handling all of the combined audio/MIDI chores that I require for production. Tracking, editing, mixing, and rendering are all located in one (rather complex) piece of software. It comes with an exhaustive suite of effects and an extensive library of very usable sampled and synthesized sounds. It's capable of multi-channel mixing too, with video incorporated, if you are so inclined.
Cockos' Reaper has now become my primary sequencing/audio mixing program due to its remarkable customizability. The interface is fully customizable as are many of the tools, making it possible to create features not available in any other sequencing software. Example: I was able to create a toolbar for dropping articulations into piano roll data, saving huge amounts of time during composition.
Makemusic's Finale is probably the best-known music notation program available and has been for many years. It gives a huge array of standard (and non-standard) music notation choices for creating scores, controlling symbols, and printing the results. It also uses Garritan sounds to allow the composer to hear an approximation of the score as it is being written. Downside: It is a complex program that requires a considerable investment of time to learn.
PG Music's Band In A Box with RealTracks is an indispensable practice tool for improvisation. It is possible to create all manner of custom exercises resulting in credible rhythm section backing tracks - chord changes, style, tempo, and instrumentation all available for modification. It also happens to be a fine tool for experimenting with song creation. I used it extensively for the demos on the EWI page but I only scratched the surface of its ultimate capabilities.
Cyberlink's PowerDirector is my favorite consumer video editor because of its ease of use, speed, and more-than-adequate capabilities. It also offers ancillary advanced audio and video tools that increase its scope significantly. The audio portion of those tools even incorporates a version of my favorite audio editing tools from iZotope as icing on the cake! It can render to virtually all of the most popular video codecs and the quality is superb (depending on settings.) It's also quite affordable.
Blackmagicdesign's Davinci Resolve is my favorite professional video editor because of its advanced capabilities. It is also available in a very feature-laden free version. It has a relatively steep learning curve but has amazing tools for editing, color grading, computer graphics effects, multichannel audio editing and advanced rendering.
Magic Music Visuals is visualization software for music that allows the almost unlimited creation of modulated abstract visuals for audio tracks. It even allows track-by-track complexity for intricate, detailed results. It uses a "node" system of modules for constructing each element. Capable of very creative results.
iZotope RX series Advanced is the best of the specialized audio editing programs I use. RX allows me to surgically manipulate audio wave files in subtle to drastic ways. It uses some of the best time stretching and pitch shifting algorithms that I have heard for single sounds and full mixes. Its detailed ability to remove unwanted noises without damaging the music is simply astonishing, especially the form using spectral analysis to identify elements for modification/removal.